Music-Driven Movies in Tune With 2015 Awards Season

Youth Michael Caine
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film class of 2015 is notable for a healthy crop of music-driven movies, whether it’s documentaries like “Amy,” which chronicles the rise and tragic fall of chanteuse Amy Winehouse; or Universal’s duo of box office hits: “Straight Outta Compton,” a tribute to gangsta rappers N.W.A, and “Pitch Perfect 2,” about competing a cappella groups.

But some features use music to drive the narrative in unusual, often intricate ways. In “The Martian,” ’70s disco helps Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut avoid utter despair, even if it’s not his ultimate playlist.

In Charlie Kaufman’s upcoming stop-motion “Anomalisa,” a dispirited protagonist suffering from an existential crisis takes solace in listening to the “Flower Duet” aria from the opera “Lakme” on his headphones, and is comforted by the voice of a young woman he encounters who sings Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in both English and Italian. (Though Kaufman’s original choice was “My Heart Will Go On”).

In “Youth,” opening Dec. 4, Michael Caine plays a retired classical composer-conductor named Fred Ballinger, who’s best known for his “Simple Songs” cycle. A movement from that cycle is alluded to throughout the film. When we finally do hear “Simple Song No. 3,” which was composed for the movie by David Lang and sung by opera/pop diva Sumi Jo, it acts as an emotional release not only for the film’s blocked maestro, but for the audience as well.

“One of the beautiful things about the film is that everything leads up to this incredible moment when you see that song (performed),” Lang tells Variety. “It has to (convey) this huge distance between where he was as a young man in love to where he is now as an old man in love. And the optimism of his youth has to be tempered with the incredible disappointment and heartbreak and the bittersweetness of having accomplished things when the person you love isn’t there with you.”

For “Love & Mercy,” about troubled Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson, Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) was saddled with the task of not only creating an underscore that stitches together some of the 20th century’s most sophisticated pop (mainly the music of “Pet Sounds”), but he had to find a way of conveying Wilson’s creative process. “To try to bring someone’s music into a story about them — a story that’s not necessarily reflecting the exteriors — is a challenge,” Ross explains. “It took a long time to get it right.”

To help in his work, Ross got access to a treasure trove of outtakes from Beach Boys recording sessions from 1964 forward, including 68 versions of “Good Vibrations” alone. The aim, as Ross notes, was to “blur the lines between Brian’s music, (the) original score and what’s swimming through his head.”

The result is a series of sonic collages that use those trademark celestial harmonies, bits of instrumental, conversations and even Wilson’s voice manipulated by a granular synthesizer.

“Musically, (Brian) was very isolated,” Ross says. “I think the Wrecking Crew was there for him, but in terms of (the Beach Boys), he wasn’t supported by the band. There was a very real sense of
isolation, and that’s what we were trying to capture.”

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